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Bloodied, But Unbowed

In 1994 there were less than 1,000 tourists visiting Zambia’s Kafue National Park. Today there are over 7,000 and the elephants are back, no longer terrified by the sight of humans.

The intersection of tourism and increased wildlife may seem counter-intuitive, but not in Zambia’s Kafue National Park. In Kenya’s Masai Mara too many tourists in zebra-painted vans have destroyed the wildlife experience, but Kafue is different. The park helped pioneer the “walking-safari”, but poachers ruled there for over three decades exterminating the rhino and culling the parks elephant herds, from 30,000 to fewer than 4,000. The poaching also killed the tourism business despite Kafue’s reputation as a biodiversity hot zone. Its 22,000 square kilometers are at the intersection of east, south and central Africa’s animal and plant kingdoms.

To bring both the tourists and animals back, bush camp owners have taken an active role in the anti-poaching battle. Arguably they have done more good than the Zambian government’s poorly funded and corrupt efforts. As more poachers have been busted in the last five years, more animals have been seen throughout Kafue, which is Africa’s second largest National Park.

“I can’t and won’t say poaching is eradicated but it is vastly improved from the 1980’s. I think the peripheral edges of the park still have some problems but the volume of game, and especially elephants in the north, has completely changed,” said Pippa Turner, who arrived in Kafue in 1985 and today is the Director of Kafue Camps & Safaris Ltd., which operates Mayukuyuku Bush Campin the northern part of the park along the Kafue River. “When I first came here, I never saw elephants until around the mid ‘90s and they ran terrified.  These days you won’t do a game drive without seeing elephants.Sightings of cheetah, wild dog, lion, leopard and buffalo are all good, plus all the antelope species, and nocturnal creatures. I can sell our area of the Kafue with confidence.”

Kafue’s comeback has been arduous and hardly seamless. Corruption has prolonged the effort, but progress has been made with a blueprint that few other parks in Southern Africa have used. That blueprint is a blend of anti-poaching, supported by lodge operators, and coupled with job creation for local tribes’ people. Funding from large European non-profit NGOs is also a factor. The battle continues, but the tide has turned.

KANTIPO and Beyond

The seeds for the park’s resurrection were planted in 1997 when the non-profit Kafue Anti-Poaching Organization was formed to provide technical and logistical support to the National Parks and Wildlife Services, now Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA). KANTIPO was committed to community development projects, varying from wildlife awareness to bee-farming workshops. By developing relationships with wildlife officers in the field, the decline in wildlife numbers started to reverse by 1999, according to Bruce Whitfield, a KANTIPO organizer and lodge manager at Lufupa.

KANTIPO’s motto was “Resources + Manpower + Morale = Results,” and it systematically attacked the problem, surveying the park and putting patrols in key spots. Over the course of five years, with the financial aid of non-profits including London’s Environmental Investigation Agency, it spent less than $350,000 and put the money in the field, supplying tents, uniforms, rations and a patrol boat for ZAWA scouts. It kept the money out of the hands of the officials at headquarters but that backfired.

“Unfortunately its key to success was also its undoing. KANTIPO was reluctant to channel any of its funds through the National Park Headquarters in Chilanga. It preferred to provide support directly to the park and thus failed to develop a strong enough relationship to make it a partner of choice,” says Whitfield.

IN 2004, KANTIPO was replaced by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), an NGO that joined forces with the World Bank. It agreed to support ZAWA and Kafue National Park through a development project that was less about anti-poaching and more about infrastructure and tourism development. It turned out to be a trough for corrupt officials and they pilfered at will from its staggering $22 million budget.

“Its work plan was over-ambitious and implementation was very poor. There were many gross misappropriations of funds, many key staff were dismissed as a result of the corruption that in turn led to a general lack of motivation at different levels within the program. Very little support trickled down to the ground level and poaching in the park spiked drastically,” Whitfield said. Despite KANTIPO and NORAD’s shortcomings, the projects gave ZAWA a management plan and also developed enough infrastructure to attract tour operators.

After NORAD’s departure, the tourism investors stepped in to help ZAWA with fuel and equipment and ZAWA patrols were reinvigorated. With help from the tourism sector ZAWA was able to patrol larger areas and slowly poaching was once again on the decline. With over 30 bush camps now open in the park they have become the most effective form of anti-poaching, Whitfield believes.

“The more game viewers driving around the park the more game we will see.  The more game we see, the more tourists will flock to fill the game viewers. As long as the private sector continues to support its partner ZAWA and vice versa, Kafue National Park will continue to grow and retain its place as one of the greatest parks in the world,” Whitfield said.

After over a decade in the park managing Lufupa and more recently Hippo Lodge, Whitfield now works as the logistics manager for First Quantum Minerals’ new Trident copper mining project in Northwestern Zambia.

Man on an Anti-Poaching Mission

Darrell Watt came to Kafue in 1999 and established the Mushingashi Conservancy Game Reserve that includes 100,000 hectares in Kafue’s northern tier. Watt grew up in the bush in Zimbabwe and learned about wildlife following his dad as he made the rounds developing water sources for rural populations. He had no formal education in wildlife protection management but understood the interplay of local people and their use of the land. He took no money from the non-profits and got little help from ZAWA during his decade-long battle with the poachers, yet has made a dramatic difference on his game reserve where wildlife numbers have increased. Along the way he seized 250 weapons and got nearly 500 poachers convicted. Among the poachers he put away was an operational ranger working for ZAWA. His future goals are to reintroduce Black Rhino and increase Red Lechwe numbers.

“Our anti-poaching campaign was a combination of building roads on the poachers paths, therefore stopping the movement of poached meat leaving the area, and then employing ex-poachers who gave us poacher’s names and told us where they were coming from,” Watt said. “The 30 game scouts employed by us tracked the poachers and reacted immediately to gunshots and vulture movements.”

When captured, Watt’s scouts did not beat the poachers but instead treated them humanely and converted them to informers. “Before we took them to court they took us to active poacher groups in the field. They even wrote to me and told me if I leave them alone they will never come hunting in Mushingashi Conservancy.

Watt said the poaching today in Kafue is confined to the places where there are no roads, no tourist camps and no ZAWA patrols.

Kafue’s wildlife now has a future. As long as the tourist camps remain in business and supportive of ZAWA’s efforts the herds will grow. The word is out on the “tourist telegraph”: Kafue is the home of the walking safari where you can see rare species such as oribi, reedbuck, roan and sable in good numbers, as well as the black-cheeked lovebird, a Kafue endemic. The “poacher’s telegraph” is also sending a message: Kafue is no longer a safe and easy killing field.